Ethics & Public Policy Center

The Populism Debates

Published in National Review Online on January 7, 2019


Elsewhere on NRO today, JD Vance offers a smart piece on Tucker Carlson’s now-famous monologue last week and some responses to it, which have already drawn much worthwhile commentary here and elsewhere. The dispute over Carlson’s remarks, like the (related) argument late last year about Oren Cass’s new book on work, has been a valuable and revealing intra-conservative debate.

Some of the critical responses to Carlson have revealed mostly the kind of disconnected cosmopolitanism he was describing. Others have rightly pointed to the dangers inherent in any politics of resentment, even when it’s partially justified. Some of Carlson’s champions, meanwhile, have gone further than he did in suggesting there was some way forward in his critique. Others have merely noted that he hit upon some vital truths and not every criticism needs to be constructive.

But Vance in particular gets at something that hadn’t been sufficiently articulated. “The response on the right is as interesting as Carlson’s monologue itself,” he writes, “for it reveals a discomfort among some conservatives with balancing the tensions that exist in our coalition, and in our ideology.”

I think that’s a critical point in thinking about the populism wars on the right. There is a tension in American life between goods that need to be kept in some balance, and we have often failed to find that balance lately. Conservatives generally favor market competition and a traditional social order for reasons that make some sense together. The uneasy conjoining of the two is not a new phenomenon, was not invented by the modern conservative movement in the 20th century, and isn’t just a marriage of political convenience. Markets sometimes offer ways to solve problems from the bottom up and to allow for an edifying diversity of solutions to coexist at once, and so can be allied to the logic underlying a commitment to civil society. The market also relies on a stable and orderly society made possible by sturdy families and strong social institutions. And freedom from unduly coercive authority is an essential prerequisite for making moral choices.

And yet, markets and a traditional moral order characterized by commitments to family, faith, community, and country can also be in very great tension with one another. The market values risk-taking and creative destruction that can be very bad for family and community, and it rewards the lowest common cultural denominator in ways that can undermine traditional morality. It seeks the largest possible consumer base in ways often hostile to national boundaries and loyalties. Modern markets can also encourage consolidation in ways that are very far from friendly to civil society. Traditional values, meanwhile, discourage the spirit of competition and self-interested ambition essential for free markets to work, and their adherents sometimes seek to enforce codes of conduct that constrain individual freedom and refuse to conceive of men and women first and foremost as consumers.

The things we value are therefore sometimes in tension with each other. When that tension arises, we have to prioritize, and that prioritization has to be guided by an idea of human flourishing that lets us roughly figure out in individual instances when and how far the demands of market competition need to be met and when and how far those of family, faith, community, or country need to be met. There is no perfect formula for doing this, obviously. But there are better and worse ways to do it, and our society has not been doing it well enough in this century, which has left a lot of ruin in a lot of people’s lives.

One key to finding this balance is to recognize that the market is a means, not an end. We should be immensely grateful for the benefits it has brought us—the ways in which it has made us better able to pursue good ends. But we should not mistake it for those ends, and so should be willing to constrain its reach when it undermines them instead of advancing them, which happens. Conservatism has ceded its economic thinking too thoroughly to libertarianism since the 1990s in a way that has caused us to forget this. It is time for that to change, and so for some rebalancing of our priorities.

Contemporary populism on the right has been aroused in part by the costs of this imbalance—which are both cultural and economic. That populism is an alarm bell that should help us see the need for rebalancing. But it is not itself the new balance we seek. It is too angry; it is frequently self-righteous and self-pitying; it lacks historical perspective; it assumes malevolence in its opponents where it should mostly see ineptitude; it leaves itself dangerously open to racial resentment and the lure of barking mad conspiracies; it lacks the gratitude for basic social order that defines the conservative disposition; it shows too little interest in accommodation and social peace; it is much clearer about what it hates than what it loves; and it has come to be identified with (and at times led by) a bullying, buffoonish narcissist who assertively embodies all these downsides while only tangentially enabling any upsides and so threatens to discredit any rebalancing his ascendancy makes possible.

It makes sense to point to these weaknesses in taking stock of this populist moment. But it doesn’t make sense to ignore the alarm bell that the larger populist mood represents. We do not face a choice between crude libertarianism and ugly populism. We face a shortage of other options, and the rise of populism should help us see that. It is a call to new thinking, even if it is not an example of new thinking.

Perhaps understandably, many of its critics identify this populism entirely with Donald Trump, and so insist that any attempt to take its complaints seriously, even as a starting point for applying conservative principles to previously under-acknowledged problems, is simply a cynical indulgence of Trumpism. This kind of argument cannot help but become a defense of the pre-Trump status quo. But disapproval of Trumpism ought not be a defense of what came before him. It should, rather, compel some contention with the failure of the pre-Trump Republican Party to speak to the concerns of even its own electorate, let alone the larger society—a failure so serious that it left Republican voters open to Trump’s appeal.

Some on the right saw that failure well before Trump, and tried to warn against it, but evidently not in ways that persuaded meaningful numbers of politicians or voters. In the wake of Trump, it ought to be impossible to ignore the need for a rebalancing of priorities, and a reapplication of enduring principles to new problems. Trump’s rise has in some respects made it easier to have some much needed debates about this question, though Trump’s hideous character problems and gross unfitness for the presidency may ultimately make it much harder for those debates to go well. The extent of the price we will all pay for that unfitness remains to be seen.

We can already see the nature of this price for the right in some of the intra-conservatives debates that have begun. The notion that Trumpism is neither the sum of the problem nor the root of a solution but evidence of a problem that requires a solution is not going to be easy for defenders or for critics of Trump to accept. If it is true, as I think it is, then it calls not for the abandonment of conservatism as the organizing principle of the right (as some well-meaning Trump critics and some well-meaning Trump defenders have suggested, each for their own reasons) but for the revival of a conservatism that sees the balancing of freedom and order in practice as its charge.

These early debates have offered some reasons to hope this could in time become a cause that attracts and unites conservatives who are otherwise divided over Trump. But they have offered some reasons to fear much worse outcomes too.

— Yuval Levin is the editor of National Affairs and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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